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t was a pleasant surprise to find Kate Isles new album on my desk. Some might know Kate Isles from her work with her husband, Bill. While I’ve certainly seen young couples form a duo and go out on tour across the nation, the story of Bill and Kate is a little backwards. Bill decided to start playing music again around 16 years ago after a 25 year hiatus and through music, he met Kate. I’ve always associated the two with songwriting because I first met them at a singer-songwriter competition where I was asked to judge at Big Top Chautauqua back before I even worked with the Reader. Bill was the coordinator for the competition. Over the years I’d see Bill and Kate from time to time and I remember that Kate had mentioned she was working on her own solo work a few years ago. It didn’t happen over night, but I was glad to see that she has finally came through with her plans.
I was mentioning singer-songwriter material, and that’s just what to expect off this album. Those who have read my reviews might have noted that sometimes I’ll say that the lyrics from someone’s album might be abstract or have underlying meanings that I’m unsure of; this is seldom the case with this album. There is definite story telling going on with these songs. Kate paints a picture of what she’s trying to reflect on most every track on this album with great detail. At times the lyrics transcend typical meter and rhyme which cleverly fits into the music as a form of prose. While the music is catchy most of the time, it’s safe to say these aren’t some shallow and contrived pop songs.
The album begins with the upbeat tune “Walkin’ Down My Street.” I never really questioned Kate’s mental health, but this song is quite uplifting and generally positive. “Is this real or is this just a good dream? Walkin’ down my street/I can hardly believe that this life and this love are here for me,” goes a part of the chorus. There are a lot observations of nature on this album that most anyone from the Northland can relate to. I would consider this a winter album as there are a number of references to the season. In this particular song it brings out my personal favorite part of winter, when it’s ending. Yes, it’s a beautiful image, “Now I hear the robins sing as I look down to our lake/I see the ore boats all lined up and a Coast Guard Cutter is breaking through the ice.”
While this album stays fairly light with its general feel, it subtly takes on things that are facts of life. The song, “Gabe,” is pretty incredible in how it portrays the beginnings and ends of life. It starts with a baby, Gabrielle, who is five months old and “Her Mama tucked her in her coat,” and, “With a little smile she peeked out from the top for her Mama’s coat.” In the liner notes there happens to be a picture of just that. The song highlights a life on a small farm with a great amount of detail. This is one example of where Kate goes more into story telling than following usual structure in lyric writing. “They had a big house in the country, two goats, some bigs and chickens, rabbits and a pony, dogs and cats and Gabe’s own horse, a dapple grey Arabian, she named Ma-Raffa.” I’m not sure what the mouse living in the wall is going to say when it finds out it was left out of the list of animals, but if the listener had any question of what that farm was like, they don’t have much to wonder about after that verse. The song ends off with Gabe “Standing by her Mama’s grave/The snow falls gently on her face/A tiny bird that she once saved/I see her tucked inside that coat/that little smile upon her face.”
Most of the material on this album is original, but Kate adds a few covers into it here and there. In the case of the song, “There is a River,” she adapts the lyrics from a poem of the same title by Ellie Schoenfeld, a poet native to Duluth. The song has a gospel-folk feel to it, although it never really mentions anything specifically religious, at least not in a conventional way. On this song Kate brings in a chorus of women which gives it its gospel feel. The song ultimately is a little deep with the concept that we’re all interconnected using the metaphor of a river. “There is a river that rises inside the earth/inside each of us/a river flowing with everything that has ever happened,” goes the opening verse.
Kate delves into a lot of different subject matter on this album, but overall I’d say this is a CD about life and living it optimistically. There are simple truths and wisdom in it and there are things that go deeper but not in a way where there is any sense of bitterness or lasting hurt. It’s an album of clarity.
As far as a singer-songwriter folk album, it’s among one of the best I’ve ever heard come out of this area. As a thirty-something year old male, I’m probably not going to listen to this album much after this review and it’s safe to say that a wholesome folk album doesn’t often fall into the demographic I’m in, however, this shouldn’t be a reason for really anyone to listen to this album. It’s certainly a powerful entrance for Kate Isles.
With any good singer-songwriter album, the lyrics should be the driving force and they definitely are on these recordings. What I haven’t mentioned about this album is the instrument arrangements. The songs hinge around the relatively laid back strums of the acoustic guitar which are covered mostly by Bill on the album. There’s nothing amazingly technical going on but the accompaniment of instruments like Derek Birkeland’s mandolin and violin, Paul Jones’ steel guitar work and Lee “Colorblind” Johnson’s percussion stay refined and tasteful. They certainly add some nice finishing touches to the album as a whole. Needless to say, there’s a lot of experience going on in this album. The album appears that it was done DIY, which isn’t really apparent with the overall sound, as in, it sounds great, as good as anything I’d expect from any of the known engineers in town. Bill Isles engineered and produced it down in Carlton, Minn, which is a lot different than the last album I heard some three or four years ago from the pair where they were recording in hotel rooms and other places while on the road. The jacket design was also done by Bill. There’s a rustic and homey feel to the music and that’s reflected with the album’s liner layout and cover. The cover is Kate knitting alongside an acoustic guitar inside a house with wood floors.
In the end, everything comes together on this album pretty much perfectly. From the concept, delivery and straight down to the honest and heartfelt lyrics, everything about this album just fits. Kate will be officially releasing the CD at Clyde Iron on Thursday, December 3 at 7 p.m. If you happen to pick this copy up too late, don’t worry, it’s certain there will be more shows coming soon. The live performance will no doubt include some discussion that will make some of these notable songs even deeper with the stories behind them.